Of Death, Bitter Herbs, Teeth, and Harry Potter

Note: I didn’t start out to write a Good Friday post. It just took me all week to find the time to finish this. Given the topic, it seems quite appropriate though.

I’ve had a hard time dealing with death lately."Gathering Bitter Herbs" (Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

While I was pregnant with Lily, I realized that death scared me much more than I had ever previously acknowledged. Death and birth, as our bookends on this human experience, are closely related, so I think it’s natural that being pregnant stirs up thoughts of death (and for most of human history giving birth has been such a risky undertaking for women that they very justly feared that the start of their child’s life might be the end of their own).

Bringing new life into the world also naturally requires reflection on what values and beliefs we want to pass on to our children. I didn’t just want to give birth to a child; I wanted—want—to help imbue her life with meaning and purpose, which brings me back to the Big Questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? All of these questions deal with death both explicitly and implicitly.

In a previous post, I talked about how some work I did with a hypnotherapist while I was pregnant helped me recognize that one of my deepest fears about birth and motherhood was that the hope I had been raised with—the hope that death, as John Donne penned, is just “one short sleep past” before “we wake eternally”—might simply be wishful thinking, a way to deal with the randomness, pain, and injustices of this life.

These past few weeks have made me face this fear anew. The three families, seven adults and seven children, who died in that tragic Montana plane crash you’ve likely read about were alumni of my alma mater and my husband went to high school with one of the fathers. This news has been especially hard to fathom now that I have a child. The loss of so many young lives—all of the children were under 10—is truly unfathomable to me. And I can’t imagine how my parents would cope if they ever faced such a loss of their children and grandchildren (two of the mothers were sisters; five of the children were cousins).

And this week, one of my former colleagues died of lung cancer. She had never smoked even one cigarette. It feels so colossally unfair. She was only 52 with two children in high school. We taught composition together in the English department for two years when I was still quite green. Not only did she welcome me (and my dog) to her office anytime, but she also opened all of her files, gave me copies of her syllabi, and mentored me through my first challenging semesters.

The last time I saw her was in the lab of a local hospital. She was getting her blood drawn to try to figure out why she couldn’t shake a persistent chest cold. I was getting my blood drawn to make sure we were all set to start trying to get pregnant.

She was on her way to a lung cancer diagnosis. I was on my way to meet Lily. Life and loss don’t ever seem to be too far from each other.

This juxtaposition of life and loss was really emphasized for me this past weekend when the small church/spiritual community that we go to celebrated a Sedar meal together as a way to respect, appreciate and enter into this important Jewish holiday. The 15-part meal, in the words of a rabbi, represents the journey of liberation and transformation. As one of my pastors put it, “It’s 15 parts because transformation takes a long time—it’s the work of a lifetime.”

One of the steps, Maror, the eating of bitter herbs, really affected me. I was holding Lily during the meal, doing the new mama sway to keep her peacefully sleeping in her sling. I carefully ate the mixture of horseradish on lettuce, trying not to spill on her (wouldn’t that be a great introduction to solids!).  The horseradish is actually mixed with the Charoset, a sweet walnut and apple paste which symbolizes the mortar that the Jews used as slaves to keep the bricks together while building Pharoah’s many projects. My other pastor, who had actually made the dishes, pointed out that the Charoset, the sweetest part of the whole meal, also had wine or grape juice mixed in to symbolize that everything, even the sweet and easy times, has at least a little pain that is inherent. We ate the bitter herbs twice. The second time they were inside a Matzah “sandwich,” symbolizing the mix of bitter and sweet isn’t only external; it’s also within.

As a metaphor for life, the eating of bitter herbs teaches me that life and loss really are inextricably woven together. I’m speaking as a novice—and a non-Jewish one at that—but my takeaway was that the whole experience is a reminder that life is often bitter, we will be slaves in Egypt for far too long, but we carry with us the hope and possibility of liberation and transformation.

I told the group after the meal that Maror had reminded me of how difficult the previous week had been because Lily had started teething. The pain she felt cutting her teeth was excruciating for Stephen and me to witness (she added a new scream to her repertoire that gives new meaning to the term "blood-curdling"). And many of our efforts to help her were very poorly received by her. There’s just no way to explain to a baby that suctioning her nose with a saline spray and one of those horrible bulb aspirators is actually going to make her feel better. However, from my vantage point as an adult (with teeth!), I know that teeth are important and quite nice for both eating and biting off hang nails. I can now see two little teeth starting to emerge, but boy is that emergence a big pain in the gums (and ears, and nose, apparently).

All I can hope is that from the vantage point of the divine, our pain and loss that seems so unfair, so random is like cutting teeth in the big scheme of things. And I desperately hope there is a scheme of things.

Those close to me laugh at how often I see applicable truth and insight in the Harry Potter series, but I’m realizing while writing this post that besides the clever plot and engaging characters, I love these books because they are all about death, the temptation of immortality, the power of self-sacrificing love, and, above all, the hope that there is a big scheme of things.

J.K. Rowling has said that her mother’s slow demise from multiple sclerosis was a big part of her motivation to write the series. She struggles mightily with her faith in the books—this is no easy allegorical tale. Like me, her doubts are big, her questions real. The tombstone on the grave of Harry’s parents points to her hope. She quotes 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” That is ultimately the thesis statement of the series.

Rowling knows that her hints of transcendence, her gestures at something beyond can only be that—gestures and not road signs. Faith, after all, is the substance of things hoped for. When Harry meets Dumbledore in the afterlife—well, really the chamber to the afterlife—and learns the answers to most of his questions, he asks Dumbledore if their conversation was real or if it was just in his head. Dumbledore’s answer is one of my favorite explanations of faith: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I have no idea how to incorporate Dumbledore's wisdom, or the lessons of Maror, or even my hopes and fears into my parenting of Lily. But maybe in a small way just deciding to have her is in itself a gesture, a prayer for the substance of things hoped for.